Now there is something about a nice bit of vintage murder that is ever so slightly comforting, now I can’t say I have ever understood why this should be so – but it does seem to be the case for many readers. I love Agatha Christie – I have loved her forever, and remain a staunch fan, however, I wonder if Ngaio Marsh wasn’t a rather better writer. I discovered Marsh much later than Christie, and those novels I have read have been consistently good. Chief Inspector Alleyn and his trusty Inspector Fox are a fabulous police duo – Alleyn Marsh’s gentleman detective; a staple of golden age crime fiction.
“In after years Roberta was to find a pleasant irony in the thought that she owed her friendship with the family to one of those financial crises. It must have been a really bad one because it was at about that time that Lady Charles Lamprey suddenly got rid of all her English servants and bought the washing machine that afterwards, on the afternoon it broke loose from its mooring, so nearly killed Nanny and Patch.”
A Surfeit of Lampreys (US title Death of a Peer) opens in Marsh’s native New Zealand. Young New Zealander Roberta Grey – has been heartily welcomed into the bosom of the Lamprey family – a large, chaotic and endlessly charming, aristocratic family from England who are forever on the edge of complete financial ruin. As a young girl, Roberta watches with alternating dismay and exasperation as the family overspend while in funds, making pathetically inadequate attempts to economise when in the middle of another crisis. During these happy days – Roberta is regaled with horror tales of Uncle G – Lord Charles Lamprey’s childless elder brother – who controls the family purse strings. When Robin, as she is often called, is about sixteen – the Lampreys return to England, taking much of the colour from Roberta Grey’s life.
Four years later and Roberta arrives in England to live with an aunt. Newly bereaved, she is however delighted for an excuse to stay with her beloved Lampreys while her aunt recovers from an illness. The Lampreys are now living very comfortably on the entire top floor of an apartment building – in two formally adjacent flats. The eldest Lamprey son Henry and his sister Frid (Lady Friede) meet Robin off the ship and duly inform her that they are in crisis again. When Roberta is happily installed in Pleasaunce Court Mansions, she learns that the formidable Uncle G – and his very peculiar wife Aunt V have been summoned by Lord Charles, whose latest financial crisis is so severe he intends to appeal to his brother to bail him out. Just before the arrival of the Marquis and Marchioness of Wutherwood – a bailiffs man – aka a bum (not a term I had ever heard before) arrives at the flat and is ensconced in the kitchen – apparently to wait in vain for his money, he is closely followed by Lord Charles’ impoverished, whispering Aunt Kit. So in the best tradition of golden age mysteries – the scene is set for a domestic set drama full of eccentrics and those harbouring ill will.
Upon Lord Wutherwood’s arrival a bizarre charade is acted out by the older Lamprey siblings – it wouldn’t be a proper Ngaio Marsh without a nod to her theatrical leanings – before Lord Charles gets around to asking his dour brother for the money he needs. Soon after Lord Charles makes his request, his brother and sister in law make their departure – only they don’t get very far. As Lord Wutherwood is found slumped and horribly injured in the lift – the lift that is only ever used by the Lampreys – the servants naturally use the stairs. Within a few hours the Marquis’ injuries have proved fatal – and Lord Charles Lamprey succeeds to the title. Enter Alleyn and Fox – who start immediately to sift through the limited evidence, interviewing the various members of the household and their improbably named servants to establish everyone’s alibis. Alleyn is at his urbane best, a raised eyebrow at his suspects, a witty rejoinder with his colleagues – he charms more than he intimidates, yet Alleyn is as sharp as they come.
“She was glad that Henry had no more than one and elevenpence in his pockets and that, instead of borrowing her proffered ten shillings and taking a taxi, he suggested they should go roundabout by bus and tube to Pleasaunce Court. Splendid sang Roberta’s heart, to mount the swaying bus and go cruising down Park Lane, splendid to plunge into the entrance of the tube station, to smell the unexpected sweetness of air that was driven through the world of underground, to sink far below the streets and catch a roaring subterranean train. Splendid, she thought, to sit opposite Henry in the tube and to see his face, murkily lit but smiling at her.”
A Surfeit of Lampreys is a brilliantly executed mystery – I loved the domestic setting and the characters were brilliantly entertaining and ever so slightly bonkers. Ngaio Marsh is actually much more than a great mystery writer, she was a darn good novelist – she doesn’t stint on the detail – she takes her time to describe the London her characters pass through, there’s a clear sense of her characters past’s. I enjoyed spending time in Marsh’s pre-war London, and her truly dotty aristocratic household. This really has whetted my appetite for more Ngaio Marsh – as I do have several others tbr.